Chapter One

Part One
of Three

Jarod prowled around his rented room, restlessness weighing on him like a blanket. He hadn't slept in days. He couldn't even remember how many days but then, he had no idea what day it was now. He had to sleep. Hungered for it. But every time he slept, the dreams came.

But he had to do something. Stimulants only worked so long before he grew afraid to take them because of the increasing paranoia. Not that he didn't have a reason to be paranoid.

He sat down abruptly. Maybe if he just sat down for awhile. Maybe just rested. Shut his eyes for a short time. Not sleep, no. Just rest for a few minutes. . .

He felt the warmth of a body beneath him, the caress of hands on his chest and he groaned, never wanting this to end. His body, slick with sweat, pressed hard against and into his lover's body, feeling the tightness caress him, the warmth surround him as he began to thrust rhythmically.

Jarod sighed with pleasure and opened his eyes, knowing what he would see. What he had seen before. The lean, attractive man beneath him, his knees raised, calves lightly caressing Jarod's sides as they made love, hands gripping the headboard so hard the knuckles were white. With a smile, Jarod reached up to stroke his lover's silvery hair, drawing his hand down into the short beard.

The other man's eyes opened and intense gray-blue eyes met his. "Do it." His voice was low and hoarse with passion. "Do it." Jarod let his hand drop to caress his lover, stroking him in time with his own thrusts. This time, yes, please, this time. . . .

Jarod jerked awake with a cry, eyes darting around the room but, of course. no one was there. He sat up, gasping for breath. It was a just a dream, just a dream. Damn! It was just a dream!

He fell back into the chair, all too aware that the ache in his groin remained. Once again, he had woke up just before climaxing. At this rate, he'd be dead of terminal frustration before the Centre ever caught up with him. With a sigh, he undid his painfully tight jeans and reached down to stroke himself, falling back into the memory of the dream, striving for the intense feelings that had filled him just moments before but his climax, when it finally came, was unsatisfying. Something was missing.

His lover was missing. But he didn't have a lover. Had never truly had a lover. In the sterile environment of the Centre, he had found no one he had wanted. Who had wanted him. No one truly interested in him as a person and not as a science project. And once out of the Centre, he had been too busy, moving too quickly to acquire a lover. Only, for too brief a time, Nia. Gentle, loving Nia whom he may never see again.

But in his dreams, he had a lover. A dream lover, a silver-haired man with intense gray-blue eyes, pale skin and a neatly-trimmed beard. A man as tall as he, smoothly muscled with scars on his chest, one neatly bisecting the left nipple. In fact, he'd asked him about those scars just last night. . . .

Jarod sat up so quickly his head spun, fear surging through him. He had asked his dream lover about those scars and the man had answered! Last night had been the first time they'd spoken to each other. Most times the dreams had started with them already in each other's arms, ending just before either of them climaxed.

Genius is dangerously close to madness.

He'd heard that more then once. In the Centre, from employees who thought he couldn't hear them or maybe didn't care if he did.

How long will he last? A man's voice, speaking softly.

He drew his knees up, wrapping his arms around them as he stared into the distance, trying to remember. Who had said that? And when?

How long. . .

How long what? How long before he went insane? He closed his eyes, concentrating.

How long will he last? A man's voice, speaking softly.

Quiet! He'll hear you. Sydney! He's young. With the right training, right environment, he may never become like the others. That's why it's important he stay here. Isolated. He isn't meant for the outside world.

Jarod opened his eyes. Was this his fall into madness? He thought back over his last few "missions" and shuddered. More then once, he'd come close to the edge, almost turning into what he was fighting against. Almost hurt someone. Not by accident but intentionally. Because he could. No, because he'd wanted to.

He reached for the phone. He'd already done his usual safety precautions, rigging the phone to give false readings to anyone who tried to trace the call. It had became automatic with him. So was the number he dialed.

Sydney picked up on the third ring. "Hello?" Jarod opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. After a moment, Sydney spoke again. "Hello, Jarod."

"Hello, Sydney." Jarod said finally. "You'll be happy to know that Crouger will live. However, she'll never walk again."

"Neither will Liz Manner." Jarod said sharply. "Or see. Or hear."

"You went too far, Jarod. How long before you kill someone?" Sydney's words hit too close to home and Jarod remained silent. "You have to come back to the Centre. Please Jarod. . ."

"How long does he have?" Jarod said softly.

"What? Jarod?"

"Someone asked that once. About me. How long does he have?' How long until what, Sydney?"

"Jarod. . ."

"Here's another cute little saying I overheard. There's a fine line between genius and insanity.' Is that what they were talking about? What happened to the others, Sydney?"

"What brought all this on, Jarod? What's been happening?" There was real concern in Sydney's voice. "Jarod, please tell me where you are. We can come get you. . ."

"I'm not going back!" Jarod slammed the phone down.

Sydney stared at the phone pensively, only half-aware of Miss Parker's arrival.

"Another call from your pet project?" She asked in her usual mocking tones.

Sydney sighed, reflecting that he was getting very tired of Miss Parker's put-downs of Jarod. "Jarod was asking about the others."

Miss Parker's hand froze just short of the coffee pot. "How did he find out about them?"

"A memory. Some ill-spoken words in his hearing years ago."

"Why remember now?" She asked, picking up the coffee pot and poured herself a cup. She turned to look at Sydney. "Could he really be losing it?"

Sydney turned away.

"He's getting more and more out-of-control." Parker continued. "People are starting to get hurt. How long before he does something really dangerous? We have to find him."

"Tell me how and I'll be happy to go get him!" Sydney snapped and Miss Parker threw him a surprised look. Sydney turned away without meeting her eyes, refusing to reveal how worried he really was.

The bookstore was one of the largest in the state. If he couldn't find what he wanted here, Jarod figured he wouldn't find it anyway. He found the psychology shelves and spent the morning browsing through them, searching for books pertaining to genius and madness. Of course, there were no books on Pretenders. On their type of genius. Or on their possible descents into madness.

With that morbid thought, Jared gathered up the books he chosen and started down the stairs to the main floor. On the way to the check-out area, he passed by a display he'd barely glanced at before, a towering display of books touted as psychological thrillers. But something about the display had changed and he glanced at it briefly. A glance that turned into a double-take as what he had seen registered.

Dropping the armload of books he carried into a nearby chair, he turned back to what he had seen. The books were all written by the same author. Most were paperbacks but the main book of the display, the newest, was a hardback and one of those had been turned so the back, with the author's picture, faced outward. And that picture was of the silver-haired man from his dreams.

Jarod picked one of the books up, studying the picture harder. Yes, it was the same man. He flipped the book over to look at the cover. "MUSHROOMS" was the title with "by J. Steven Horne" under it. He looked at the inside back flap where the author information was. According to it, this was Horne's seventh book, all of which were best-sellers. It gave general information on Horne; that he'd been a profiler working with the Boston Police Department who now wrote full-time. He lived on the New England coast where he was restoring a house built in the 1700's with the aid of his two Celtic wolfhounds, Finn and Medb. So that's what those were! Jarod looked at the picture once again. He'd thought that maybe those two beasts were small horses. They were almost big enough to be large ones.

He looked over the display and picked out one of each of Horne's books, carrying them up to the check-out, his previous collection of books forgotten. Once back at the room, Jarod dropped the books on the bed and scrounged together a hasty snack. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten a decent meal or slept the whole night through but frankly he didn't care as he sat cross legged on the bed and reached for the first book Horne had written.

He spent the day and most of the night reading through the books. Each one was fairly thick and deep in every sense of the word. Along with enjoyable and scary in a fun kind of way.

It was just past midnight when Jarod put down the last book and reached for his computer. It took him awhile but he finally managed to sneak into the publishing house's computers and lift Horne's address from it. He wrote it down. . .he found himself unable to trust his memory. . .and was in the process of rapidly packing up his meager belongings when he realized what he was doing. He sat down abruptly.

What was he doing? He couldn't just turn up at this man's doorstep. Horne didn't know him at all. But. . .but he had to see him. He had to know that he was real. Maybe find out why he was dreaming of him. Jarod shoved the last of his belongings into the bag and grabbed the case of DSAs. He had to cross pretty much the entire continent to reach the east coast and the sooner he got there, the better.

Two days later, Jarod stood in the trees not too far from Horne's house, telling himself how crazy it was to come all this way just to stare at a man he had dreams of. In fact, there was a word for it. Stalking.

But he wasn't here to stalk. Just to see. See if this man was real. If his lover was real.

No, not his lover. He didn't have a lover and this man was just someone who look like what he imagined his lover to look like. And this was really, really sick.

He sank back against a handy tree, exhaustion sweeping through him. He hadn't slept in days and he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. He'd spent two days on his bike, heading with a single-mindlessness that now astonished him toward this goal and now that he was here, he had no idea as to what to do. The wisest thing would be for him to turn around, get on his bike and head back to that little village he'd passed through. Get some sleep, get something to eat and leave, return to his chosen mission.

He straightened, determined to do just that but then the front door of the house below opened and a man walked out. Silver hair glinting in the early morning sunlight, pale skin covered by light clothing, Steve Horne stood on the porch, the two dogs milling at his feet before darting off to run into the woods.

Jarod watched him, seeing him clearly despite the distance, the blood pounding in his ears. He looked just like in his dreams, better even, and Jarod found himself licking his lips, remembering those dreams. He tore himself away from those thoughts and turned around, staring blindly into the brush.

What the hell was he thinking, coming all this way and for what? More frustration. Well, he knew the man existed so now he should just leave.

So why didn't he?

Something cold pressed against his hand and he jumped, looking down to see one of those huge dogs next to him. The other was just behind the first, both looking at him intently.

"Well, hello." He reached out to scratch the beast's ears. "You must be. . ." He looked. "Medb. And you're Finn." They panted, watching him intently. He looked down at the man now removing shutters from a lower window and felt his mouth go dry. "This is crazy. I gotta go."

He rubbed Medb's ears again and turned but Finn was there, blocking his way. "All right, big fella. Out of the way." He started forward but the dog didn't move. Instead he growled deeply, showing his sharp, white teeth. "No. I have to go." He muttered this under his breath and tried to push past the big dog but then Medb was before him, barking deeply.

Jarod stepped back at the sight of all those teeth and tripped over something unseen. Reflexes slowed by exhaustion and lack of decent food, he landed hard on his back, knocking him breathless. His vision dimmed.

"Medb! Finn!" A familiar voice said sharply along with several words that were strangely familiar. The dogs fell silent and it was quiet enough for him to hear the sound of footsteps approaching. He blinked the darkness from his eyes and struggled to sit up. Hands reached down to help him up and he looked up into intense gray-blue eyes. Eyes that were achingly familiar. Eyes that flared with recognition.

"You. . .who are you?" Horne asked in a deep voice, accented faintly but before Jarod could even think of an answer, he felt the blood pound in his ears and his vision dimmed again. This time he passed out.

Steve Horne stared at down at the stranger at his feet, mouth still open in total surprise. Realizing this, he snapped it closed and knelt beside the man, hand groping for a pulse. Yes, there it was. So he was still alive. Whoever he was.

But he was familiar. He had seen this man before. In his dreams. The all-too vivid dreams he'd been having these last couple of months.

He sat down hard, still gaping at the man. "Now what?" He asked Finn then sighed. "Medb, fetch me the phone. Phone, Medb. Go." The smaller of the wolfhounds took off for the house, leaving Horne and Finn studying the newcomer. "What do you think?" Horne asked Finn absently then blinked, realizing that he was holding a conversation with the dog. He'd been doing that a lot lately.

Medb reappeared then, the mobile phone in her mouth. "Good girl." Absently petting the huge dog, Horne flipped the phone open and pushed a speed-dial button.

An hour later, he watched as the doctor examined his mystery guest. "Malnutrition mainly. My guess is he hasn't been eating well. Or sleeping either. Too damn thin. Any idea who he is?" She asked as she closed her bag and rose.

"Remember those dreams I told you about?" He waited for her nod. "He's the man in those dreams."

"Well." She eyed the man again before turning away. "No one ever said living around here was boring. Sure you don't want him taken into town?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. He'll be okay."

"That isn't what I meant, Steve."

Steve blinked then sighed. "I'll be okay, too. Come on, I'll walk you out to your car. Finn, stay. Guard." He walked her down to her car, pausing at the sight of a motorcycle nearby, complete with a duffel and silver case strapped securely to it.

"That must be his bike. Wonder where they found it?" "They" being the two deputies Sheriff Belling had sent up with the doctor to help carry the stranger into the house. He looked around but the two were already gone. He made a mental note to call and ask later as he said good-bye to the doctor, watching her drive away.

He stood there for a long moment, lost in thought until a cold nose pressed against his hand roused him. He patted Medb's head absently. "Let's check this out." He said to the dog as he walked to the bike and unstrapped the duffel. Grabbing it and the case, he walked into the house and back to the kitchen.

Medb took her customary place in the huge walk-in fireplace as he thumped both items onto the table. He opened the duffel first, grimacing at the sight of clothes that were obviously dirty. He pulled them out, carrying an armful to the utility alcove of the kitchen and adding them to his laundry, starting a load before returning to the table. Red notebooks, a laptop, a bundle of identification. Horne thumbed through the last thoughtfully. All had photos of the man currently upstairs, all had different last names but the same first. So his mysterious visitor had at least part of a name.

"Jarod." He said softly, surprising himself by savoring the name. With a faint smile, he dropped the bundle and reached back into the duffel, this time pulling out some computer printouts. He took a look at the one on top, a run-off photo of a woman, and swore. "Medb, my love, it looks like we will have to talk with Aunt Hennah after all." Medb rumbled, tilting her head inquiringly as the man reached for the phone.

Part Two

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